Touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical about an Egyptian band in a tiny Israeli village is heartbreaking.
Loneliness, unfulfilled lives and existential angst aren’t usually fodder for Broadway musicals. But the exquisite Tony Award-winning The Band’s Visit exudes a moody, Chekhovian glow that is heart-rending.
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Based on the 2007 movie, it tells the story of an Egyptian band that, invited by the Arab cultural centre in Israel’s Petah Tikva, mistakenly ends up in the similar-sounding Beit Hatikva, a tiny village in the middle of the Negev Desert.
There’s no hotel, and the bus doesn’t come back until the next morning, so gruff, restless cafe owner Dina (Chilina Kennedy) and her two bored restaurant workers, Papi (Adam Gabay) and Itzik (Pomme Koch), offer the formally dressed musicians some food and a place to stay.
What happens over that night – spoken mostly in broken English – isn’t very eventful, but it forms the absorbing narrative of the show.
The spirited Dina and the band’s upright, proud conductor, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), go out for a modest dinner, where they discuss everything from Dina’s memories of Egyptian music and movies as a child to the demise of their respective marriages. The socially awkward Papi goes on a double date at a roller skating rink, and the romantic, Chet Baker-obsessed musician Haled (Joe Joseph) tags along to give him advice. And the underachieving Itzik invites musician Simon (James Rana) for dinner at his home, where his dissatisfied wife Camal (Ronnie Malley), his newborn child and father-in-law are waiting.
Meanwhile in the show’s most absurd subplot, a man identified only as Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo) spends hours by the town’s public phone, waiting for his girlfriend to call.
Composer/lyricist David Yazbek and book writer Itamar Moses infuse the show with warmth and humanity. The music emerges so simply and naturally from situations – a lullaby to a baby, a bittersweet memory recalled at a park – that the show feels at times like a play with music. And the presence of the band’s ensemble members means melodies can waft in from stairwells and open windows.
Director David Cromer, aided by Scott Pask’s modest, moveable set and Tyler Micoleau’s carefully calibrated lighting, gives us fascinating glimpses into these ordinary people’s lives. And the results are luminous.
The scenes with Itzik’s family are almost unbearable in their intensity – so much is suggested with so little – while Gabay’s Papi provides much-needed comic relief.
But it’s the odd couple pairing of Dina and Tewfiq that’s at the centre of the story, and the actors bring the characters to life confidently. Tewfiq’s dignity and buried pain is evident in Gabay’s posture and gravelly voice. Kennedy’s frustration and loneliness, meanwhile, come across not only in her impulsive outbursts but also in the way she slices watermelon or pours out cups of coffee. (If you’ve seen her Carole King in Beautiful, this character is a complete 180.)
While the show, like the film, isn’t overtly political, its message of two peoples connecting over their love of music registers with heartbreaking clarity.
This is encapsulated in one four-word exchange when Simon and Itzik’s father-in-law Avrum (David Studwell) say goodbye. It’s a quiet moment, but, like much of the show, it’s unforgettable.